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Understanding the Land Where ‘Kafkaesque’ Was Born LARRY ROHTER 6/22/2014 12:00:00 AM Zródło: NYT
Understanding the Land Where ‘Kafkaesque’ Was Born

Mariusz Szczygiel’s ‘Gottland’ Sees a Surreal Czechoslovakia

One thing worth remembering while reading Mariusz Szczygiel’s mordant “Gottland: Mostly True Stories From Half of Czechoslovakia” is that Franz Kafka was a Czech, and Mr. Szczygiel is not. He’s a Polish writer and journalist, looking with a kind of appalled fascination at his country’s southern neighbor and finding that life there can often be, well, Kafkaesque.

It turns out, Mr. Szczygiel discovers, that the Czechs even have a word, kafkarna, that they use to describe “an absurdity that is impossible to explain rationally.” Because of the long periods of totalitarianism suffered by Czechoslovakia — a country born out of the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian Empire after World War I and dissolved into the Czech and Slovak republics in 1993 — the concept also has a nightmarish application, and that becomes Mr. Szczygiel’s true subject.

It is impossible not to think of “The Trial” or “The Castle” after reading this complaint Mr. Szczygiel found in the diary of Vaclav Cerny, a literary critic persecuted through 40 years of Communist rule: “In a political trial, the fact of the defendant’s birth is already a crime in itself.” Mr. Szczygiel (pronounced SHEE-gaul) seems to have interviewed hundreds of people and read countless books and documents in his efforts to track down such obscure but symbolically freighted incidents and characters, and shows a remarkable knack for ferreting out the telling detail.

“When people have to talk about Communism,” they tend to employ passive, impersonal constructions, as if they “had no influence on anything and were unwilling to take personal responsibility,” he notes in one typically observant passage. “Thus, in a situation where someone ought to say: ‘I was afraid to talk about it,’ ‘I hadn’t the courage to ask about it,’ or ‘I had no idea about it,’ they say: ‘There was no talk about it.’ ‘Nothing was known about it.’ ‘That wasn’t asked about.’ ”

But “Gottland” does not focus exclusively on the Communist era. Mr. Szczygiel also writes about forgotten figures from the Nazi occupation, like Lida Baarova, an actress whose life and career were blighted by reports that she was something more than just a favorite of Goebbels and Hitler; and the early-20th-century entrepreneur Tomas Bata, an eccentric Czech version of Henry Ford whose planned settlements for workers were the birthplace of both Ivana Trump and Tom Stoppard.

To Mr. Szczygiel’s credit, his gaze is just as unsparing once Czechoslovakia splits apart, and the successor Czech Republic eagerly embraces capitalism. A long, affecting chapter contrasts the lives of Jaroslava Moserova, a plastic surgeon who suffered under Communism, and Zdenek Adamec, a 19-year-old student who, in 2003, emulating a famous suicide in 1968, set himself on fire to protest a “democratic system, where it is not people who decide, but power and money.”

Kafka and his family also make several appearances. His beloved sister Ottilie died in Auschwitz, but her daughter Vera surfaces here in two guises: as the object of Mr. Szczygiel’s bizarre and ultimately fruitless quest for an interview and also as a “roofer,” Czech slang for “a creative artist whose name is not proscribed, and who lends it” as cover to others “who had fallen from grace and were not entitled to publish.”

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Mr. Szczygiel often examines the indignities of the Czech experience of Communism through the prism of popular culture, telling the stories of singers, actors, writers, directors and intellectuals who ran afoul of the system and were, in his phrase, “silenced to death.” Sometimes, they were punished for major ideological deviations — they supported Alexander Dubcek’s experiment with democratic socialism in 1968 or signed the Charter ’77 petition calling for “respect for human and civil rights” — but other times, it was for the most trivial and arbitrary of reasons.

A few are known outside the Czech Republic, like the playwright and future president Vaclav Havel and the novelists Pavel Kohout and Bohumil Hrabal. But most are not, and their stories, as told by Mr. Szczygiel, prove to be especially revealing examples of kafkarna in its most sinister form.

The writer Lenka Reinerova, for example, is placed in solitary confinement for 15 months, and “whenever she asks what she has been arrested for, she invariably hears: ‘You know better than anyone.’ ” Released without a trial, she goes to the Internal Affairs Ministry years later to ask for a certificate of imprisonment, only to be told that “no case like hers ever existed: ‘Maybe you just imagined it all, comrade.’ ”

The book’s title, however, refers to Karel Gott, a pop singer nicknamed the Golden Nightingale who, like the majority of Czechs and Slovaks, played along with the Communist system. He even signed an “anti-Charter” petition; was unapologetic after the Velvet Revolution of 1989 for having done so, suggesting that the Charter ’77 movement was an Israeli plot; and, in 2006, opened a self-aggrandizing museum, Gottland, just outside Prague, that seems modeled on Elvis Presley’s Graceland.

“Getting inside Gottland is like obtaining a seal of approval: The past is O.K.,” Mr. Szczygiel writes. Fans “loved Gott, and they made it through Communism along with him,” so visiting his shrine is a way “to confirm that their lives have been all right.”

Mr. Szczygiel’s larger point, of course, is that Czechoslovakia was also a kind of Gottland, full of people justifying the accommodations to evil they made so as not to become its victim themselves. When a film critic, referring to Lida Baarova, tells him “there was no list of names that couldn’t be written or mentioned aloud” during the Communist era, Mr. Szczygiel quite sensibly asks, “So how did people know there was a ban?” He’s told that “everyone had to sense intuitively whose name couldn’t be mentioned.”

Readers who lived through the collapse of Communism in Eastern Europe may wonder why Mr. Szczygiel, who won the European Book Prize in 2009 after this book was translated into French, feels the need to revisit all of this. He supplies an answer in an 85-word vignette about a young Czech pop music fan who thinks that Charter ’77 is a rock band needing “better P.R.” to get its work into stores, and therefore “should put some effort into the task.”

In an afterword, Mr. Szczygiel confesses that initially he “wasn’t certain if anyone in the West would be interested in what a Pole has to say about the Czechs,” since “a representative of one marginal nation writing about another marginal nation is unlikely to be a success.” He needn’t have worried. “Gottland” offers an indelible account of the ravages of 20th-century totalitarianism and the way it continues to pollute human thought and behavior in the 21st century.


Mostly True Stories From Half of Czechoslovakia

By Mariusz Szczygiel

276 pages. Melville House. $25.95.